Missing Forest Through the Peach Trees on Atlanta Toll Lanes

The Atlanta Journal has a long, in-depth article (Feb 5, 2012) on the trials, tribulations, and political hurdles faced by High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes in Atlanta and Georgia. The crux of the problem is that while everyone knows that Atlanta needs new road capacity to deal with existing and rising congestion, tolling is almost impossible to support politically. The debate seems to hinge almost completely on tolls as a way to fund new roads, with the governor and other elected officials unwilling to toll motorists or raise taxes to fund the new capacity. And the funding problem is huge-potentially 285 miles of new HOT lanes at a cost of $16 billion. User fees-tolls-are really the only viable way to fund this system.

But tolling isn’t just about funding new roads. On the contrary, tolling is essential for managing the road network efficiently and effectively. What few local analysts appear to realize is that pricing roads will likely reduce the size of the overall investment because the tolls will better allocate road space and redirect travel. To narrow the debate to financing roads does a disservice to the size, scope and magnitude of the transportation challenges facing the region.

Moreover, many in Atlanta seem to think public-private partnerships (P3s) are largely a source of cash to finance the roads. P3s, in fact, are a way of delivering the service through a performance contract that also shifts the financial risk for the new roads to private investors. The benefits are not just about dollars, the P3s, supported by tolling, ensures Georgia can add the right roads in the right place at the right time through a user pays system.

Unfortunately, as long as the debate centers on finance and funding–taxes vs. tolls–these larger and more important long-term issues are likely to be lost.